Witnesses to Terror
Deborah Amos: From American RadioWorks, this is Witnesses to Terror: The 9/11 Hearings. I'm Deborah Amos.
American 11 hijacker: Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves.
Amos: The 9/11 Commission heard from eyewitnesses to the September 11 attacks:
Betty Ong: My name is Betty Ong on Flight 11. And there's somebody stabbed in business class. We can't breathe in business class. Somebody's got mace or something.
Stanley Praimnath: And I'm looking at an airplane coming, eyelevel, eye contact, towards me. I am seeing the letter "U" on its tail, and the plane is bearing down on me.
Amos: The commission heard dramatic stories that changed what we knew about the terrorist attacks. From the 9/11 hearings, history emerged.
In the coming hour, Witnesses to Terror. First this news update.
Deborah Amos: This is Witnesses to Terror, an American RadioWorks special report. I'm Deborah Amos.
The September 11th Commission reviewed more than two and half million pages of documents. They listened to tapes; they watched surveillance videos; they looked at photographs and diagrams. They examined the remains of the passports of some of the hijackers, found in the wreckage in Pennsylvania and New York. They interviewed more than 1,200 people in ten countries. Their hearings began with testimony from survivors and family members of the victims of September 11.
Mindy Kleinberg: My name is Mindy Kleinberg. My husband Alan was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
Amos: The families wanted to know what mistakes were made in the days and months before the attacks. And they wanted accountability.
Kleinberg: 15 of the 19 hijackers' visas should have been unquestionably denied. I am holding in the hand some of the applications of the terrorists who killed my husband. All of these forms are incomplete and incorrect. Some of the terrorists listed their destination as simply "hotel" or "California" or "New York". One even listed his destination as "no."
Help us to understand how something as simple as reviewing forms for completeness could have been missed at least 15 times.
Amos: During their 18-month investigation, the commissioners and their staff pieced together the most complete and detailed account yet of the terrorist plot, the attack itself and its aftermath. The commission's report contradicts many key elements of what was previously believed about the attacks.
We know now that most of the hijackers did not enter the country legally, on student visas. We know that many of them were singled out for special scrutiny before they got on the planes. But they were allowed to get on, carrying mace and boxcutters and pocketknives with four-inch blades. We know now that Vice President Dick Cheney's order to shoot down the hijacked planes came too late.
In the next hour, producer Catherine Winter presents highlights from the hearings. We'll hear what the commissioners heard - dramatic stories of the September 11th attacks; stories of heroism, stories of lucky breaks, stories of deadly errors.
Catherine Winter: The September 11th plot was years in the making. It was carefully planned. But the commission learned that the plot did not go as smoothly as it might at first appear. At the commission's final hearing, staff members presented a summary of the plot.
It began in Afghanistan. All 19 of the September 11th hijackers had come through training camps in Afghanistan set up by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 9/11 Commission staffer Douglas MacEachin presented the report.
Douglas MacEachin: The camps created a climate in which trainees and other personnel were free to think creatively about ways to commit mass murder. According to a senior al Qaeda associate, various ideas were floated by mujahideen in Afghanistan, such as taking over a launcher and forcing Russian scientists to fire a nuclear missile at the United States, mounting mustard gas or cyanide attacks against Jewish areas in Iran, dispensing poison gas into the air conditioning system of a targeted building, and last, but not least, hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into an airport terminal or nearby city.
Winter: In Afghanistan, Osama bin Ladin met a Kuwaiti named Khalid Sheik Muhammed. Muhammed is now in U.S. custody. Some of the information in the commission report comes from statements he made during interrogation. The staff corroborated some, but not all, of what he said.
Muhammed's nephew is Ramzi Yousef. Yousef masterminded the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Three years later, Muhammed approached Osama bin Laden with a new, grandiose plan. Dieter Snell presents the commission's staff report. It says Muhammed originally wanted to hijack ten planes at once.
Dieter Snell: He claims that, in addition to the targets actually hit on 9/11, these hijacked planes were to be crashed into CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear power plants, and the tallest buildings in California and Washington State. The centerpiece for his original proposal was the tenth plane, which he would have piloted himself. Rather than crashing the plane into a target, he would have killed every adult male passenger, contacted the media from the air, and landed the aircraft at a U.S. airport. He says he then would have made a speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all of the women and children passengers.
Winter: Osama bin Ladin approved a scaled-back version of this plan in 1999. He began choosing operatives, including an Egyptian named Mohammed Atta.
Snell: Atta was chosen as the emir, or leader, of the mission. He met with bin Ladin to discuss the targets: the World Trade Center, which represented the United States economy, the Pentagon, a symbol of U.S. military, and the U.S. Capitol, the perceived source of U.S. policy in support of Israel. The White House was also on the list, as bin Ladin considered it a political symbol, and wanted to attack it, as well.
Winter: Atta arrived in the United States in June of 2000 and enrolled in a flight school in Florida, along with a man from the United Arab Emirates called Marwan al Shehhi.
Snell: In mid-August, Atta and Shehhi both passed the private pilot airman test. Their instructors described Atta and Shehhi as aggressive and rude, and in a hurry to complete their training.
Winter: Two other men chosen to be al Qaeda pilots failed their training. But bin Laden found a replacement who already had a pilot's license. And he sent another volunteer to flight school, a Lebanese man named Ziad Jarrah.
Again, commission staff member Dieter Snell:
Snell: It appears that during the summer of 2001, friction developed between Atta and Jarrah, and Jarrah may even have considered dropping out of the operation.
Given his background and personality, Jarrah seemed a relatively unlikely candidate to become an al Qaeda suicide operative. From an affluent family, he studied at private Christian schools in Lebanon before deciding to study abroad in Germany. He knew the best nightclubs and discos in Beirut and partied with fellow students in Germany, even drinking beer, a clear taboo for any religious Muslim. Jarrah also appears to have projected a friendly, engaging personality while in the United States.
Here he is, hair frosted, proudly displaying the pilot certificate he received during his flight training in Florida.
Winter: Jarrah made repeated trips to visit his girlfriend and his family. His girlfriend came to the U.S. to see him, and even went to one of his training sessions at flight school. In late July, he visited her in Germany. He used a one-way ticket, suggesting he might not have planned to return. While he was in Germany, he had an emotional conversation with another al Qaeda operative, who encouraged him to go through with the plan. Jarrah went back to the United States.
Snell: While the pilots trained in the United States, bin Ladin and al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan started selecting the muscle hijackers - those operatives who would storm the cockpit and control the passengers on the four hijacked planes.
Winter: Dieter Snell:
The so-called muscle hijackers actually were not physically imposing, as the majority of them were between 5'5" and 5'7" in height, and slender in build. All but one from Saudi Arabia. The muscle hijackers were between 20 and 28 years of age and had differing backgrounds. Many were unemployed and lacked higher education, while a few had begun university studies. Although some were known to attend prayer services regularly, others reportedly had even consumed alcohol and abused drugs.
Winter: These recruits got special training in Afghanistan on how to conduct hijackings, disarm marshals, and handle explosives and knives. 14 of these men got tourist visas and got into the United States, but the commission learned that a 15th man was stopped at the border. Its investigation brought to light a startling story.
A month before the September 11th attacks, a customs inspector in Orlando, Florida refused admission to a Saudi man. The inspector was Jose Melendez-Perez. He told the commission that Saudis come through Orlando often. They're on their way to Disneyworld. But this traveler was different.
Jose Melendez-Perez: My first impression of the subject was that he was a young male, well groomed with short hair, thin mustache, black long sleeved shirt, black trousers and black shoes. He was about 5'6" and in impeccable shape. He had a military appearance. I had the impression of the subject that he had knowledge of interview techniques and had military training. I noticed that he did not have a return airline ticket or hotel reservation.
My first question to the subject through the interpreter: why he was not in possession of a return airline ticket. The subject became visibly upset and in an arrogant and threatening manner, which included pointing his finger at my face, and stated that he did not know where he was going and when he departed the United States.
What first came to mind at this point was the subject was a hit man. A hit man doesn't know where he's going because if he's caught, that way he doesn't have anything or any information to bargain with. My wife said that I was watching too much movies.
Subject then continued stating that a friend of his was to arrive in United States at a later date and that his friend knew where he was going. I then told him that without knowledge of the English language or a hotel reservation, he would have difficulty getting around Orlando. He answered that there was someone waiting for him upstairs. When asked the person's name, he changed the story and said no one was meeting him. The subject was very hostile throughout the entire interview. When the subject looked at me, I felt a bone-chilling cold effect. The bottom line, he gave me the chills.
Winter: Melendez-Perez found a technical reason to deny the man entry: He had refused to answer questions under oath. Customs agents put the man on a plane to Dubai. At the gate, this man who had claimed he didn't speak English said, in English, that he would be back.
Melendez-Perez testified that when he learned of the attacks on September 11th, he thought immediately of the man he turned away at the border. He asked immigration agents to tell the FBI, and he believes they did, but he testified that the FBI never contacted him. He said outside of the INS, the first people to ask for his story were members of the commission staff.
The commission learned that the day of this incident, Mohammed Atta was at the Orlando airport. commissioner Richard Ben Veniste told Melendez-Perez that the man he stopped, Muhammed Kahtani, was probably meant to be the 20th hijacker.
Richard Ben Veniste: taking into account that the only plane commandeered by four hijackers, rather than five, crashed before reaching its target, it is entirely plausible to suggest that your actions may well have contributed to saving the Capitol or the White House, and all the people who were in those buildings, and for that we all owe you a debt of thanks and gratitude.
Winter: The investigation revealed that some of the other men initially chosen as hijackers never got in to the U.S. because they were unable to get visas. They were refused because consular officials thought they might be planning to work in the U.S..
The commission's report says before 9/11, border controls were focused on keeping out illegal workers, not terrorists. Most of the hijackers who got in were Saudis, and Saudi citizens rarely overstayed their visas or tried to work illegally.
Government officials have denied that Saudis got special treatment when they applied for visas, but Melendez-Perez testified that once they got to the U.S., Saudis did get special treatment from customs agents.
Melendez-Perez: Matter of fact, the day that I was working on this particular incident, one of my co-workers stated to me, "You're going to get into trouble because you're trying to refuse a Saudi."
Winter: Government officials also said after September 11th that customs and immigration officials could not have stopped the other 19 hijackers from entering, because there was nothing wrong with their papers. The staff report challenges that assertion.
Zelikow: The director of the FBI testified that, "Each of the hijackers came easily and lawfully from abroad." The director of Central Intelligence described 17 of the 19 hijackers as, "Clean." We believe the information we have provided today gives the commission the opportunity to reevaluate those statements.
Winter: The report says some of the hijackers made false statements on their visa applications, manipulated their passports in a fraudulent manner, made false statements to border officials, or violated immigration laws once in the U.S.. Some were known al Qaeda operatives. U.S. officials failed to notice these clues.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that more careful screening of travelers and their documents is a key to preventing terrorism. Its report says blocking terrorists from traveling freely is at least as important as drying up their financial resources. Since 9/11, border controls have been strengthened, but former immigration and customs officials testified that if men like the 19 hijackers tried to enter the country today, most of them would still get in.
Deborah Amos: Coming up, the military responds to the hijackings.
Federal Aviation Administration: We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, to help us out.
Northeast Air Defense Sector: Is this real-world or exercise?
Federal Aviation Administration: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
Deborah Amos: I'm Deborah Amos. You're listening to Witnesses to Terror: The 9/11 Hearings, from American RadioWorks. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Deborah Amos: This is Witnesses to Terror- the 9/11 Hearings, from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos.
The 9/11 Commission found that the military and the Federal Aviation Administration were not prepared for the attacks on September 11th.
They didn't expect a suicide hijacking. They didn't expect hijackers who could pilot a plane. Flight attendants were trained not to be confrontational with hijackers. And neither the FAA nor the military expected an attack from within the United States.
Earlier accounts of September 11th suggested that the military heard about the hijackings in time to respond. After 9/11, military officials said that if the fourth airplane hadn't crashed, they would have shot it down before it hit its intended target - probably the White House, or the Capitol. The 9/11 Commission examined those claims.
As American RadioWorks producer Catherine Winter explains, their report tells a different story.
Nydia Gonzales: On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was the operations specialist on duty at American Airlines Southeastern Reservations Office in Cary, North Carolina.
Catherine Winter: American Airlines employee Nydia Gonzales testified before the 9/11 Commission on January 27th of 2004.
Gonzales: At approximately 8:20 in the morning, Betty Ong, an American Airlines flight attendant, called our reservations office requesting assistance with a situation on American Airlines Flight 11.
Betty Ong: We're - just left Boston. We're up in the air.
Female Voice: I know, what -
Ong: We're supposed to go to LA and the cockpit's not answering their phone.
Male Voice: I'm sorry, did you say you're the flight attendant?
Female Voice: Yes. Hello.
Male Voice: What is your name?
Ong: Hi, you're going to have to speak up, I can't hear you.
Male Voice: Sure. What is your name?
Ong: Okay, my name is Betty Ong. I'm number 3 on Flight 11.
Male Voice: Okay.
Ong: And the cockpit is not answering their phone. And there's somebody stabbed in business class. And there's - we can't breathe in business class. Somebody's got mace or something.
Male Voice: Can you describe the person that you said - someone is what in business class?
Ong: I'm sitting in the back. Somebody's coming back from business. If you can hold on for one second, they're coming back. Our first class galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. And we can't get into the cockpit, the door won't open. Can anybody get up to the cockpit? Can anybody get up to the cockpit?
I think the guys are up there. They might have gone there - jammed the way up there, or something. Nobody can call the cockpit. We can't even get inside.
Gonzalez: Hi, who is calling reservations? Is this one of the flight attendants, or who? Who are you, hun?
Male Voice: She gave her name as Betty Ong.
Ong: Yeah, I'm number 3. I'm number 3 on this flight.
Male Voice: American Airlines emergency line, please state your emergency.
Gonzalez: Hey, this is Nydia at American Airlines calling. I am monitoring a call in which Flight 11 - the flight attendant is advising our reps that the pilot, everyone's been stabbed.
Male Voice: Flight 11?
Gonzalez: I've got the flight attendant on the line with one of our agents. I can go in on the line and ask the flight attendant questions.
Male Voice: Okay, I'm assuming they've declared an emergency. Let me get ATC (Air Traffic Control) on here. Stand by.
Gonzalez: Okay, I'm still on with security, okay, Betty? You're doing a great job, just stay calm. Okay? What's going on on your end?
Male Voice: We contacted Air Traffic Control. They are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking. So they're moving all the traffic out of this aircraft's way.
Male Voice: He turned his transponder off, so we don't have a definitive altitude for him. We're just going by - they seem to think that they have him on a primary radar. They seem to think that he is descending.
Gonzalez: Okay. What's going on, Betty? Betty, talk to me. Betty, are you there? We, I think we might have lost her.
Winter: Betty Ong's plane crashed into Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. The 9/11 Commission wanted to find out whether the military could have done anything to stop that plane or the other three planes hijacked on September 11th.
On June 17th, 2004, the commission's staff presented a moment-by-moment reconstruction of the hijackings from the perspective of air traffic controllers and the military. Staff member John Azzarello began by describing what happened to American Flight 11 - the first plane to be hijacked. It took off from Boston at 8:00 in the morning.
John Azzarello: At 8:24 and 38 seconds, the following transmission came from American 11.
American 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport.
Azzarello: The controller only heard something unintelligible. He did not hear the specific words, "We have some planes." Then the next transmission came seconds later.
American 11: Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
Azzarello: Hearing that, the controller told us he then knew it was a hijacking. At 8:34, the Boston Center controller received a third transmission from American 11.
American 11: Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves.
Winter: Under FAA protocol, air traffic controllers were supposed to let their supervisors know of a hijacking. The report of a hijacking would be communicated up through layers of management to FAA headquarters in Washington. Headquarters would tell the military. The military would get permission from the Secretary of Defense to launch a fighter plane. The fighter plane was supposed to follow the hijacked plane at a discreet distance to keep track of it - not to shoot it down.
The commission found that air traffic controllers for American 11 did alert headquarters, but they also broke with protocol and called the Northeast Air Defense Sector, known as NEADS.
FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU. We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to - we need someone to scramble some F-16's or something up there, to help us out.
NEADS: Is this real world or exercise?
FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
Azzarello: F-15 fighters were ordered scrambled at 8:46 from Otis Air Force Base, but NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft. "I don't know where I'm scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination."
Shortly after 8:50, while NEADS personnel were still trying to locate American 11, word reached them that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
Winter: The military had trouble tracking American 11 because the hijacker pilots had turned off the plane's transponder. A transponder emits a signal that tells air traffic controllers where a plane is. Controllers had to use radar to find the plane, and radar isn't as good as a transponder. It doesn't give the plane's ID - or its altitude.
The air traffic controller was trying to find American 11 so he didn't notice at first that another plane assigned to him was also acting strangely. By coincidence, the same air traffic controller was assigned to the first two planes that were hijacked - American 11 and United Flight 175. Eventually he noticed that someone had turned off United 175's transponder. He tried to contact the plane, but there was no response.
Azzarello: At approximately 8:55, the controller in charge notified a New York Center manager that she believed United 175 had also been hijacked. The manager tried to notify the regional managers and was told that the managers were discussing a hijacked aircraft, presumably American 11, and refused to be disturbed. Between 9:01 and 9:02, a manager from New York Center told the Command Center in Herndon.
Manager, New York Center: We have several situations going on here. It's escalating big, big time, and we need to get the military involved with us.
Command Center: We're - we're involved with something else. We have other aircraft that may have a similar situation going on here.
Azzarello: Evidence indicates that this conversation was the only notice received prior to the second crash by either FAA headquarters or the Herndon Command Center that there was a second hijacking.
While Command Center was told about this 'other aircraft' at 9:01, New York Center contacted New York Terminal Approach Control and asked for help in locating United 175.
Terminal: I got somebody who keeps coasting but it looks like he's going into one of the small airports down there.
Command Center: Hold on a second. I'm trying to bring him up here and get you - there he is right there. Hold on.
Terminal: Got him just out of 9,500 to 9,000 now.
Command Center: Do you know who he is?
Terminal: We're just - we just we don't know who he is. We're just picking him up now.
Command Center: All right. Heads up, man. It looks like another one coming in.
Azzarello: The controllers observed the plane in a rapid decent. The radar data terminated over lower Manhattan. At 9:03 and two seconds, United 175 crashed into the south tower.
Winter: NEADS got word that a second plane had been hijacked at about the same time the second plane crashed. The fighter planes that had taken off earlier were holding off the Long Island coast. After the second crash, the commander decided to move the fighters.
NEADS Military Command Center: This is what I foresee that we probably need to do. We need to talk to FAA. We need to tell 'em if this stuff is gonna keep on going, we need to take those fighters, put 'em over Manhattan. That's best thing, that's the best play right now. So coordinate with the FAA. Tell 'em if there's more out there, which we don't know, let's get 'em over Manhattan. At least we've got some kind of play.
Winter: The fighters were sent to Manhattan, and more fighters were placed on battle stations at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. At that point, the military didn't know that a third plane had been hijacked and was headed for the Pentagon. The third plane, American Flight 77, took off from Dulles airport in Washington at 8:20 in the morning, a few minutes after the second plane left Boston. Half an hour later, it veered off course and someone turned off its transponder.
The strategy worked. The plane effectively disappeared. Its air traffic controller was in Indianapolis, and he didn't know about the other hijackings. He thought American 77 had crashed. When controllers began to suspect that American 77 was hijacked too, they looked for it along its projected flight path, but it wasn't there. It had turned around. Staff member John Farmer:
John Farmer: In sum, Indianapolis Center never saw Flight 77 turn around. American 77 traveled undetected for 36 minutes on a course heading due east to Washington, D.C..
Winter: After September 11th, military officials said that they had scrambled fighter jets to intercept American 77. The commission found that this was not true. In fact, fighter jets were airborne, but they were chasing after a hijacked plane that didn't exist. All morning, erroneous reports of hijackings circulated. At one point, air traffic controllers thought a Delta flight might be hijacked. Fighter jets were sent to intercept it, but it was not hijacked and it landed safely.
At another point, the FAA mistakenly told NEADS that American 11 had not hit the World Trade Center after all. The FAA said American 11 was still in the air and was headed toward Washington. The mission crew commander passed this incorrect information on to the NEADS battle commander.
Mission Crew Commander: Okay, American Airlines is still airborne. 11, the first guy. He's heading towards Washington. Okay, I think we need to scramble Langley right now and I'm going to take the fighters from Otis and try to chase this guy down if I can find him.
Winter: Fighters were sent to intercept an airplane that didn't exist. They were not sent to intercept American 77, because no one had told the military that American 77 was hijacked. Six minutes before American 77 hit the Pentagon, air traffic controllers in Washington noticed an unidentified plane on their radar. They told the military there was an unidentified plane a few miles from the White House. The military tried to send fighters to intercept it.
But American 77 hit the Pentagon while the fighters were still 150 miles away. By then, the FAA had ordered a 'national ground stop.' No more planes were permitted to take off, but a fourth plane with hijackers aboard was already in the air. John Farmer reads to the commissioners about the fourth plane, United Flight 93.
Farmer: United 93 took off from Newark at 8:42. It was more than 40 minutes late. At 9:28, United 93 acknowledged the transmission from the controller. This was the last normal contact the FAA had with United 93.
Less than a minute later, the Cleveland controller and the pilots of aircraft in the vicinity heard, "a radio transmission of unintelligible sounds, of possible screaming or a struggle from an unknown origin." The controller responded seconds later, "Somebody call Cleveland?" This was followed by a second radio transmission with sounds of screaming and someone yelling, "Get out of here! Get out of here!" Again, from an unknown source.
The Cleveland center controllers began to try to identify the possible sources of transmissions and noticed that United 93 had descended some 700 feet. At 9:32, a third radio transmission came over the frequency. "Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board." Then, at 9:39, a fifth radio transmission came over the radio frequency from United 93.
Ziad Jarrah: Uh, is the captain? Would like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board and are going back to the airport, and to have our demands.
Please remain quiet.
Farmer: The controller responded. "United 93, understand you have a bomb on board. Go ahead." The flight did not respond.
Winter: The Cleveland air traffic controllers called the FAA's Command Center and offered to contact a nearby military base. They were told that FAA officials at headquarters had to make the decision about whether to call the military. The command center called headquarters and said United 93 was now just 29 minutes from Washington D.C.. The commission heard tape of headquarters' indecisive response.
FAA Headquarters: They're pulling Jeff away to go talk about United 93.
Command Center: Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft?
FAA Headquarters: Oh, God, I don't know.
Command Center: That's a decision somebody's going to have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.
FAA Headquarters: You know, everybody just left the room.
Farmer: United 93 was spotted by another aircraft, and at 10:01, Command Center advised FAA Headquarters that one of the aircraft had seen United 93 "waving his wings." The aircraft had witnessed the radical gyrations in what we believe was the hijackers' effort to defeat the passenger assault on the cockpit. United 93 crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03:11, 125 miles from Washington D.C..
Winter: FAA officials were still discussing what to do. By the time they alerted the military, Flight 93 had crashed. One of the most controversial questions the commission looked into was whether the military could have shot down United 93 if it had continued on to its target in Washington.
The commission concluded this: After the fourth plane crashed, the military and government officials in Washington didn't know of the crash right away, and didn't know whether more planes would be hijacked. Believing United 93 was still in the air, Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the military to shoot down any unresponsive aircraft. The shootdown order was passed on by the regional military commander about 15 minutes after the vice president issued it. NEADS personnel in upstate New York got the message.
Vice President Of Floor Leadership: The region commander has declared that we can shoot down aircraft that do not respond to our direction. Copy that?
Controllers: Copy that, sir.
Floor Leadership: So if you're trying to divert somebody and he won't divert ... Okay. Okay, you read that from the vice president, right? Vice president has cleared. Vice president has cleared us to intercept traffic and shoot them down if they do not respond per CONR CC..
Winter: But the shoot down order was not passed on to the pilots. Military officials told the commission that the pilots didn't get the order because they didn't have specific targets yet; they couldn't be told to just shoot down any commercial plane. John Farmer:
Farmer: In short, while leaders in Washington believed the fighters circling above them had been instructed to 'take out' hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the Langley pilots were to 'ID type and tail.'
Winter: In any case, the shootdown order from the commander came too late. The order came at 10:31, but the commission staff estimates that, if it hadn't crashed, United 93 would have reached Washington before then, by 10:23 at the latest. Philip Zelikow reads the report.
Philip Zelikow: There was only one set of fighters orbiting Washington, D.C. during this timeframe - the Langley F-16's. But the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled.
As the lead pilot explained, "I reverted to the Russian threat. I'm thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know, you look down and see the Pentagon burning and I thought the bastards snuck one by us. You couldn't see any airplanes, and no one told us anything."
NORAD officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure. We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction.
Winter: Military officials told the commission that until 9/11, the United States' defenses were geared toward meeting a threat from the outside. They say that since 9/11, FAA and military protocols have changed. Military officials told the commission that if a hijacking happened today, word would get to the military faster and the military could react faster. The commander of NORAD testified that if a similar attack happened today, the military could shoot down all four hijacked planes, but he pointed out that in many instances, shooting down a hijacked plane could be a terrible error. The plane might not be intended as a weapon. The passengers might wrestle control back from the hijackers. If terrorists did hijack planes again, military commanders would still be left to make agonizing decisions, and make them fast.
Amos: I'm Deborah Amos. Coming up, the response on the ground.
Stanley Praimnath: The plane just crashed into the building. The bottom wing sliced right through the office and it stuck in my office door, twenty feet from where I am huddled under my desk.
Amos: You're listening to Witnesses to Terror: The 9/11 Hearings, from American Radio Works. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To read more about the 9/11 Commission, see photographs, and hear other testimony visit our website at AmericanRadioWorks.org. Our program continues in just a moment, from American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media.
Amos: You're listening to Witnesses to Terror: The 9/11 Hearings. I'm Deborah Amos.
John Lehman: We're facing an enemy whose principal goal is to create massive civilian casualties in the highest profile environment that they can.
Amos: In May of 2004, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman addressed New York City officials.
Lehman: Every intelligence person inside and outside the government has told us that they are coming again. They are going to attack again here in the United States, and very likely New York is where it will happen again.
Amos: To prepare for future attacks, the commission scrutinized what emergency responders did on September 11th.
As Catherine Winter of American RadioWorks reports, the commission's investigation uncovered new information about problems with New York's emergency response systems.
Winter: The commission's inquiry shows that again and again on September 11th, people had to make quick decisions based on poor information or no information. The lack of information cost many people their lives.
When the first plane hit Tower 1, many people were trapped above the impact zone. Those who could escape didn't hear an order to evacuate, because the emergency intercom system was damaged.
Claire McIntyre: We never really heard any announcements or received any information.
Winter: Claire McIntyre worked for the American Bureau of Shipping in Tower 1. The commission's investigators conducted videotaped interviews with her and other survivors. Like many other survivors, McIntyre had trouble negotiating the tower's stairways.
McIntyre: It got more and more congested as we went further down. For some reason we had to go down a long hallway and then when we got to the end of it, it was a locked door.
Winter: The commission found that tenants of the towers had never been required to do evacuation drills, and they didn't know the quickest ways down. Some stairways came to an end. People had to find their way down a hallway to locate another stairwell down. Some doors were locked or jammed.
Some people in Tower 2 saw the explosion from the neighboring tower, or saw the smoke. The commission's investigators interviewed Brian Clark. He was a vice president at Euro Brokers. He was in his office in Tower 2 when he heard the first plane hit Tower 1.
Brian Clark: And I spun in my chair, and just two yards from me outside the glass, 84 floors in the air, was swirling flames.
Winter: Some of the people in Tower 2 started to evacuate, but the Port Authority ordered them to stay where they were.
Clark: Strobe lights flashed, the siren gave its little 'whoop whoop.' And I heard a familiar voice say, "Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen, building 2 is secure. There is no need to evacuate building 2. If you are in the midst of evacuation, you may use the re-entry doors and the elevators to return to your office."
Winter: The report says it's not clear why people were told to stay in their offices. The commission couldn't ask the fire safety director about it, because he died when the tower collapsed. The order may have been meant to protect people from falling debris on the plaza outside.
Also, a mass evacuation itself can be dangerous. The first time the World Trade Center was bombed, in 1993, many people were injured during the evacuation. So, it made some sense to keep people in their offices. More puzzling, the commission found, is that people who got to the lobby were sent back up. Stanley Praimnath was an assistant vice president at a bank in Tower 2.
Praimnath: As we were about to exit the building through the turnstile first, the security guard looks at me and says, "Where are you guys going?" I said, "Well, I am going home." "Why?" "I saw fireballs coming down." "No, your building is safe and secure. Go back to your office."
Winter: Praimnath went back up to his office. He picked up the phone. He looked out his window.
Praimnath: I am looking to the direction of the Statue of Liberty, and I am looking at an airplane coming, eyelevel, eye contact, towards me, giant gray airplane. I am still seeing the letter "U" on its tail, and the plane is bearing down on me. I dropped the phone and I screamed and I dove under my desk.
It was the most ear-shattering sound ever. The plane just crashed into the building. The bottom wing sliced right through the office and it stuck in my office door twenty feet from where I am huddled under my desk.
Winter: The ceiling caved in, and part of the floor above Praimnath collapsed.
Praimnath: I am trapped under a steel desk. The only desk that stood firm, everything else is broken up. It looked like a demolition crew came and just knocked everything. Every wall was broken up. Computers were broken up; everything.
Winter: The plane slammed into the tower between the 77th and 85th floors, but the report says one stairway remained passable, from at least the 91st floor and perhaps from top to bottom. Above Stanley Praimnath's office, on the 84th floor, Brian Clark was still alive. By luck, he began to walk down the only passable stairway. Clark was a volunteer fire marshal for his firm, so he had a flashlight.
Brian Clark: We descended only three floors, to the 81st floor, a group of seven of us, when we met a very heavy-set woman and she just emphatically told our group, "Stop, stop! We have just come off a floor in flames and we've got to get above the flames and the smoke."
That's about all I heard of her conversation because I heard somebody inside the 81st floor banging on the wall and screaming, "Help, help! I am buried. Is anyone there? Help, I can't breathe!"
Winter: The voice Brian Clark heard calling for help was Stanley Praimnath's.
Praimnath: And somebody heard me scream on the other end. The person had a flashlight.
Clark: This person was directing me. This person who was trapped, saying, you know, "Left, right," and I kept moving with my flashlight.
Praimnath: The man says, "Knock on the wall and I will know exactly where you are."
Clark: Somehow I grabbed him under the arms, or around the neck, pulled him up and over this, and what, as I say later I learned was a wall. I didn't know what it was at the time. And we fell in a heap on the floor.
Praimnath: And Brian put his hand around my neck and said, 'Come on, let's go home.
Winter: Praimnath is the only survivor known to have escaped from the impact zone. Clark's workmates and the woman they met on the stair well chose to go up the stairs.
Clark: And that day they all perished, unfortunately. But they were dealing with the information they had. None of us really had known what had happened or what was about to happen.
Winter: Clark and Praimnath headed down the stairs. On the way down, Clark paused to call 9-1-1.
Clark: I told them, when they answered the phone that I had passed somebody on the 44th floor, injured - they need to get a medic and a stretcher to this floor, and suddenly I was on hold. And so, I waited a considerable amount of time. Somebody else came back on the phone, I repeated the story. And then it happened again. I was on hold a second time and needed to repeat the story for a third time. But I told the third person that I am only telling you once. I am getting out of the building.
Stanley and I went back to the stairs, we continued all the way down to the plaza level.
Winter: The commission's investigation showed that Clark's frustration with 9-1-1 was a common problem on September 11th. Initially, the commission had trouble finding out what went on when people called 9-1-1. The calls were taped, but the city refused to release the tapes, saying it was protecting callers' privacy.
The commission had to subpoena the recordings.
When investigators heard the tapes, they found that on September 11th, the 9-1-1 system was overwhelmed by the volume of calls. And 9-1-1 operators had no way of getting updated information from rescue workers on the scene. Commission staffer John Farmer presented the staff report.
John Farmer: 9-1-1 operators and FDNY dispatchers had no information about either the location or magnitude of the impact zone and were, therefore, unable to provide information as fundamental as whether callers were above or below the fire.
In most instances, 9-1-1 operators and FDNY dispatchers, to whom the 9-1-1 calls were transferred, therefore relied on standard operating procedure for high-rise fires. Those procedures are to advise civilians to stay low, remain where they are, and wait for emergency personnel to reach them.
Winter: Some operators did tell people to evacuate, but the operators didn't know that the doors to the roofs of both buildings were locked. They didn't know that helicopters couldn't get near the roofs, in any case, because of the heat of the fires. They didn't know people should try to go down, not up. And they didn't know which staircases were passable.
Police and firefighters had trouble getting information, too. Too many rescue workers were trying to use the same radio frequencies. The commission's investigators asked Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer to watch a video of the rescue effort and explain what was happening. Here Pfeifer watches men in fire gear entering Tower 1.
Joseph Pfeifer: And what you see here is this footage is actually my brother going upstairs. As so many other firefighters, that was the last time we saw them.
Winter: Chief Pfeifer himself was in the lobby of Tower 1 on September 11th. He was having trouble communicating with the firefighters upstairs. Radio signals had trouble penetrating the building's walls. Similar radio problems had come up in 1993, the first time the World Trade Center was attacked.
So, a radio repeater had been installed to allow commanders in the lobby to communicate with firefighters on upper floors. This system was working on September 11th, but a chief in Tower 1 thought it was broken, so commanders in that tower weren't using it.
Pfeifer: We didn't have a lot of information coming in. We didn't receive any reports of what was seen from the helicopters. It was impossible to know how much damage was done on the upper floors, whether the stairwells were intact or not. A matter of fact, what you saw on TV, we didn't have that information.
Winter: When the first tower fell, Pfeifer and the other commanders in the other tower had no idea what had happened. They ordered rescue workers to evacuate the remaining tower, but some firefighters inside never heard the order.
Those who did hear it didn't know the other tower had fallen, so they didn't know how much danger they were in. It appears that police communication functioned somewhat better, but not all police officers got out of the 2nd tower. Pfeifer did get out. Here, he watches a video taken as the tower fell.
Pfeifer: Heard a load roar, again, and someone yelled that the building was collapsing, and we started to run. And with bunker gear, you can't run too far, especially when a building is a quarter mile high. This beautiful sunny day now turned completely black. We were unable to see the hand in front of our face. And there was an eerie sound of silence.
Winter: Nearly 2,800 people died in the World Trade Center that day, including 343 firefighters and 60 police officers, but Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer says we should remember that most of the people who were in the towers did escape. Rescue workers and civilians risked their lives to help other people make it to safety, and 25,000 people survived.
Amos: This is Deborah Amos. In July 2004, Chairman Thomas Kean presented the 9/11 Commission's final report.
The report was exhaustive - 567 pages long, with 116 pages of footnotes. And it was unanimous. The five Democrats and five Republicans agreed on what went wrong and what must be done.
Kean: Every expert with whom we spoke told us that an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible, and even probable. We do not have the luxury of time. We must prepare and we must act.
Amos: The report essentially rewrote the story of 9/11. It says that after 9/11, terrorists were portrayed as "being all over the world, adaptable, resilient and capable of anything."
But the report says that image lets the government off the hook. It makes it seem as though nothing can be done to stop the next terrorist attack. In reality, the September 11th plotters did make mistakes, and Kean said the government's counter-terrorism efforts failed to capitalize on those errors.
Kean: The government failed to protect the American people. The United States government was simply not active enough in combating the terrorist threat before 9/11.
Amos: If border officials had had better information about who was a threat, perhaps more of the 9/11 hijackers could have been prevented from entering the country. If the airlines and the military had been prepared for an attack from inside the country, perhaps the hijackers could have been defeated. If rescue workers had communicated better in New York, perhaps fewer people would have died.
The commission recommends better intelligence sharing throughout the government. It recommends creating a national intelligence director and a national counter terrorism center. And it recommends improving emergency response.
Survivors of the 9/11 attacks and family members of victims say they will push to have the commission's recommendations enacted. They attended every hearing, and they were the first witnesses. Harry Waizer spoke to the commission on March 31st, 2003. On September 11th, Waizer was in an elevator in the World Trade Center. He was struck by a fireball of jet fuel. He is still recovering from severe burns and lung damage.
Harry Waizer: I have no rage about what happened on 9/11, only a deep sadness for the many innocent, worthy lives lost and the loved ones who lost so much that day. I do have one concern I would like to voice. I have no political experience, but I do have experience as an informed citizen.
It tells me that commissions such as this are usually formed by men and women of good will, have committed, intelligent members and staff possessed of good will, and eventually produce reports that are read carefully and seriously by others of good will.
Yet, the findings of such commissions are often ignored in the end. My fear is that the work of this commission will have a similar fate. My hope is that by speaking to you today, by putting a human face on the tragedy that was 9/11, by attempting to speak, however inadequately, for those who no longer have voices, I can help further the cause of this commission and this nation, to help build a safer, more secure tomorrow for all of us, and that doing so will help bring peace for us and our children.
Amos: Witnesses to Terror was produced by Catherine Winter. The editor was Deborah George. Sasha Aslanian is coordinating producer. Misha Quill is project coordinator. The program was mixed by Craig Thorson with Production assistance from Ellen Guettler and Web production by Ochen Kaylan. The executive editor is Stephen Smith. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. I'm Deborah Amos.
For more on the September 11th Commission, visit our Web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can hear more testimony, read transcripts, and see photographs. You can also order a copy of this program and sign up for an email newsletter about future programs. That's all at AmericanRadioWorks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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